The Lost Eagles by Ralph Graves was a pleasant surprise for a novel by a writer I never heard of before. I have been on an historical novel binge the past month. My personal belief is a good historical is harder to write than a fantasy. There are constraints built in the historical that don’t allow easy outs the way a fantasy novel can.
The Lost Eagles was first published as a hardback in 1955 by Alfred A. Knopf. The paperback was reprinted a year later under the Cardinal imprint of Pocket Books. I have a few other historicals from Cardinal.
I had never heard of Ralph Graves but a little research uncovered he was a writer and later editor for Life magazine. He also wrote a handful of novels over decades covering more than one genre. In addition to The Lost Eagles, the other historical from 1990 is set in the Philippines in WW2.
The setting for Eagles starts in the last years of the reign of the Roman emperor Augustus. Young Severus Varus is about to finish training and join the Roman legions. Disaster strikes as his cousin Varus loses three legions at the Battle of Teutoberger Wald. Severus makes an oath to Augustus that he will retrieve the Eagle standards lost in Germany. As a result of his cousin’s defeat, Severus Varus is ostracized from Roman society.
The next section of the novel is the training Severus engages in so he can fulfill his oath. He physically hardens himself through constant training. He buys a German slave so he can learn the language and their methods of fighting.
He procures a position as tribune at one of the legions stationed along the Rhine. Roman general Germanicus (and son in law to the Emperor Tiberius) plans on conquering Germania.
Varus’ knowledge of German comes in handy in thwarting a treacherous attempt to destroy the Roman army. He also locates where one of the eagle standards are hidden. A small force makes a commando raid and retrieves the eagle.
Varus returns the eagle standard to Rome winning accolades from the very people who turned their back on him a few years before. He returns to the Rhine border and through interrogations finds a second standard.
He thinks the Chauci German tribe has the last standard. This part of the novel has him traveling through Germania in winter and claiming to be a Roman deserter. He spends over a year with the Chauci earning their trust and locating the last eagle. The novel has a memorable ending.
This is one of the most blood & thunder 1950s historical novels I have read. Graves does not skimp on action scenes and battles. He also has a lot of one on one fighting. In fact, Graves devotes more to barbarian warfare than any novel I have read.
He portrays a Rome at its peak but the rot has started. The empire can barely recruit soldiers to replace the three legions lost in Germania. The quality of the new legions is not good. The tribunes want to serve their year and go back to Rome with as little of fighting as possible. A melancholy Tiberius knows conquering Germania will cost more than any benefit.
Look for The Lost Eagles at used bookstores. You won’t be disappointed. Now to find his WW2 Philippines novel.